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The quest for quality digital music in the age of iTunes and MP3s

Digital music - earphones on laptop

One of the great game-changers of the digital revolution has been the shake up of the music industry. Today, music is more accessible and more ubiquitous than it has ever been, and there is almost nothing recorded that a fairly tech-savvy consumer can’t get with just the click of a few buttons. But while the quantity of music is increased substantially, the quality of the sound produced is a shadow of what it was during the analog era. Since the early days of the MP3, the music industry has made a trade-off which favours portability and ease of access over the rich, detailed sound production of LP’s and CDs. But nothing stands still for long, and even there, things are changing.

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21st Century audio is dominated by Apple, and the re-organisation of the recorded music industry has been defined by the seamless symbiosis of iTunes and the iPod. So when they start making changes to audio quality, the music industry sits up and listens. And big changes are afoot as we begin the slow shift into an era of streaming from cloud-based services like Spotify and iCloud.

MP3s have something missing
By and large, consumers have accepted the compromise that they make due to the obvious benefits of being able to carry all your music around with you everywhere you go. But the MP3 was originally thought of as a transitional product that would be improved upon incrementally. Yet a decade later the MP3 is still hanging on, defining how we experience music today – indeed, there is a whole generation of new music lovers who are growing up thinking that this is what music should sound like.

As the American media organisation National Public Radio (NPR) explains “The triumph of MP3 and AAC formats is that they remove an enormous amount of the information contained within a recording without making it sound like they’re removing an enormous amount of information. When we listen to a digital file (especially on a better sound system), we might be able to tell that something is missing, but that something might be so peripheral to what we think of as enjoyable about music that we’re willing to trade the slight downgrade in quality for the huge step up in convenience.”

The shift began quietly with the new function “Mastered for iTunes”, which Apple introduced in February 2012, as a way to improve the quality of sound that we experience with MP3s. Basically, “it’s a set of guidelines for engineers and producers to follow, to ensure you get the best quality versions of your music files available in the iTunes Music Store. Apple also includes free utilities that allow you to preview how your files will sound once they’re encoded,” according to the blog

Music in the cloud
At this point in time it seems that the results are underwhelming. But there is intense speculation and excitement about where this might lead. The Guardian newspaper and online gadget powerhouse Gizmodo both report that Apple is preparing the ground for a “new audio file format that will offer “adaptive streaming” to provide high- or low-quality files to users of its iCloud service.” The new format will “adjust itself to the bandwidth and storage available on the receiving device.” The logic seems to be that streaming, subscription-based services are the next wave for music, and that the best, highest definition versions of music will reside on these servers, with users getting as big a file as they can manage without affecting speed of performance.

The arguments are raging around the technical specs of what an HD version of an MP3 should be, the value of mastered for iTunes and what format and service will win the wars… but it seems that a shift towards a better quality audio experience for the mobile generation is imminent. Good news for the consumers of music and for musicians who toil away in high-quality audio environments endeavouring to make the best sounding product possible, only to end up with a compressed, disappointing product in the hands of consumers.

In the meantime, an interesting company called Bongiovi Acoustics is offering an app that is supposed to transform the sound of MP3s by “analyzing the audio signal in real-time and optimizing it for playback through any device connected to your headphone or line-out jacks.”

The company was set up by the cousin of Jon BonJovi, (real name John BonGiovi), and he’s the man who revolutionised recording studios in the 70’s with Manhattan’s Power Station recording facility, which was a breakthrough in ‘digital acoustic recording’. Now that technology and expertise has been put to use to digitally remaster the MP3’s in your collection in real time to provide a richer, fuller audio experience. The iOS app is already available and they’re currently working on an Android version.

Looks like the wait for better sound quality in a portable environment is drawing to a close.

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